Copyright © 2000 by Paul S. Gibbs. All rights reserved. Any reproduction, reuse, reposting or alteration, without the express written permission of the author, is strictly prohibited. See the attached file "license.txt" for details.



Prostrate across my bond-mate's motionless, twisted body, I ignored the harsh voice that spoke urgently into my ear, and angrily shrugged aside the strong hands that grasped my shoulders. "Leave me alone!" I snarled.


Burying my face in the grimy folds of his day-robe, I sobbed in agonizing heaves--but no tears came. I'd learned that lesson too well, it seemed. No. Goddess, please, no! This can't be happening! Not him, not now


I never told him, I realized, with a rush of sorrow like a punch in the stomach. He never knew he was going to be a father


The hands clamped down on my shoulders again, too strong to dislodge and too insistent to ignore, twisting me around inexorably. Startled, I found myself facing a pair of hard, determined human eyes, millimeters from my own. "Commander, get out of my way!"

Linda Rochelle tossed me aside with easy strength, and I landed on my tail a meter away, too surprised to complain. She took my place, kneeling next to Sah'ahl, her fingers probing deep into the fur beneath his collar. Not wanting to look, but unable to tear my eyes away, I saw now in detail what I had barely glimpsed before: the ruined wig and skullcap; the blackened metal and shattered circuitry beneath; the scorched fur that covered half his face; and the bloody stubs where his ears used to be. Sah'ahl…

Linda looked up sharply. "Commander, is there a first-aid kit aboard your pod?"

I gazed at her stupidly, and she scowled. "Yes," I said. "Of course there is. But why--?"

"Because he's alive, dammit!" she flared. She pressed her hand against his chest. "God only knows how--but his pulse is fairly strong, and he's breathing steadily."

It took a few seconds for that to sink in. When it finally did I once again collapsed--and this time the tears did flow, copiously and painfully, shame and Sah'aaran dignity be damned. Linda let it go on for a minute or two; then she grasped my arms and shook me firmly. "Commander, we don't have time for this," she told me urgently.

I turned my bleary gaze upon her, and her tight jaw and cold unsympathetic eyes softened. "I understand," she went on. "Trust me, I do. But you've got to listen to me. We're five minutes ahead of the posse--if we're lucky. And when they find Akad dead…well, let's just say they ain't gonna be in the mood for explanations." She grinned tightly. "And anyway, you're the only one who can fly the damn pod."

I stared at her…and then I shook myself and ground the heels of my hands into my eyes. "You're right," I said--or tried to: no sound emerged. I cleared my throat and tried again. "Let's get the hell out of here."

She offered a hand; grasping it, I clambered to my feet and looked quickly around. To my surprise I saw that the sun had barely risen above the horizon. Though it felt like hours or days, only minutes had passed since the shootings. My pod, gleaming silver in the growing daylight, lay no more than five meters away. Against its starboard rear strut, Governor Odyn sat huddled, her face in her hands and her shoulders heaving. She noticed my scrutiny and looked up, and as she did I felt yet another painful stab through a heart already hacked to bits. Her expression was that of someone utterly shattered, adrift in a sea of chaos. I was right, I thought. He was more than just her bodyguard. Whether it was his death or his betrayal which hit her harder I don't know; but I suspect the latter. Death at least is unavoidable, sooner or later.

Linda bent down and lifted Sah'ahl, hoisting him across her shoulders in the classic fireman's carry. She grinned, and with the strain just audible in her voice, she said, "After you, Commander."


Linda was right: we were no more than five minutes ahead of the posse. Between the two of us we managed to wrestle our passengers aboard, a task which required all her strength…and all my patience. My friend the Protector had by far the easier burden: Sah'ahl at least was uncomplaining. Odyn, lashing out hysterically in her grief, fought me every step of the way, and for a time I feared I would have to stun her. She quieted, and allowed me to strap her in, only after I showed her my teeth and claws.

But at last--after what must have been the shortest pre-flight sequence in CF history--we lifted off, and our thruster-wash kissed the upturned faces of the guards who poured onto the roof from every available hatch, in large numbers but a little too late. By the time any of them managed to bring a weapon to bear, we were kilometers away and climbing fast.



Linda gazed at me curiously across the Tactical table. "It didn't occur to you that with you missing and the governor playing footsie with the Chrysaoans, Captain Thunumm would move his ship to a higher orbit so he'd have more room to maneuver?" she asked.

I shook my head tiredly. "No," I said. "It didn't. It should have--I should have realized that was why I couldn't get through with the boat's little radio. I'm an engineer, not a soldier."

"To be honest, Commander," she told me, "I wish I could say the same."

Four hours aboard Yerba Buena: not sufficient time for sleep, alas (if I dozed off now, I wouldn't awaken this side of the next century) but more than enough to eat, bathe, change into a proper duty uniform…and give my report to the captain. I've had more difficult hours than the one I spent in Thunumm's quarters--but not many. Wedged into a corner, I spoke quietly, relating the experiences of the past two weeks as best I could, through a fog of exhaustion, grief and pain. The captain listened in silence, rarely interrupting me even when I rambled; but as I gazed into his four unblinking red eyes I knew that he was hearing a good deal more than I was saying. Curiously, though, he dismissed my warnings with little more than a nod and a perfunctory word of thanks. The sudden presence of Governor Odyn aboard the battleship seemed to interest him much more. Why, I didn't know…but the implication that my efforts, my sacrifices--and not only mine, of course--had been wasted was almost more than I could endure. Only my exhaustion prevented me from lashing out. The captain would have understood, I think; but still, in retrospect, I'm just as glad I didn't.

…And now, strapped into a chair (voluntarily this time) in a Tactical room deserted except for the two of us and a bored-looking Security ensign, waiting for a hurriedly-scheduled meeting the purpose of which I could only guess, I smiled wanly at my one-time kidnapper. "So," I asked her, "how do you like zero-G?"

Linda grinned. She had been obliged to surrender her sidearm, and since boarding Yerba Buena she had donned her fingerless black gloves, but otherwise her outfit remained unchanged. On a certain level her rough-and-tumble appearance was a ludicrous counterpoint to the battleship's sterile modernity…but on a certain other level, she fit right in. "It's not too different from being underwater," she said. She chuckled. "Though I don't have to tell you that." She rubbed her belly. "I did have to ask your Centaurii doctor for something to settle my stomach, though."

I nodded. "It takes some getting used to," I assured her. A trick some of us never quite master… "I really want to thank you," I went on quietly. "For your help with Sah'ahl, I mean."

She waved her hand dismissively. "I owed you that much," she said. "And him too." She shook her head in wonder. "It's funny. For more than I week I would have been happy to see him dead--because I thought he'd murdered two good friends of mine. But then he contacted me that night--me, specifically. He didn't have any solid evidence to prove that the killer was Akad; all he could do was ask me to take his word. And I'll be damned if he didn't convince me."

"He was a salesman, all right," I agreed.

For a few seconds we were both silent. Linda stared thoughtfully at the large viewscreen on the rear wall, on which the day-side of Lands-End glowed a smooth, cloudless azure. "Any word yet--?" she asked softly.

I shook my head. "No," I said. "Not really." I sighed. "He was still alive as of an hour ago--that's all I know."

Linda cocked an eye. "I've read about you Sah'aarans. Supposedly it's different for you--mating, I mean. You don't fall in love; you get…connected. Permanently."

I nodded. "That's right."

"So if he dies…?"

"Then…," I began, and choked off. My chest was still tight and painful, and I was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe: it required a conscious effort to pull air into my lungs. The result of the stinger charge fired into my heart? Or something else? Maybe I ought to have Dr. Chiiriss take a look…I cleared my throat and tried again. "Then I'd be alone. Forever."

She looked away. "I'm starting to find out what that's like myself," she said flatly.

I quirked an eye. None of my business, I decided. "There's something I've been meaning to ask you…"

She shook herself. "Go ahead."

"How did you and Sah'ahl get into the Government Building? Obviously he set a time-delay on the autopilot--you were inside before the boat plowed into the harbor. So--"

Linda grinned wolfishly. She opened her mouth to reply--but never got the chance: at that moment the meeting began. I guess there are some things the Goddess never intended me to know.

Captain Thunumm entered first, followed closely by Commander Abrams; and behind them came Governor Odyn, steered through freefall on the steady arm of a security guard. The chief executive of Lands-End looked very different from the last time I'd seen her, just hours before, while she was being lifted out of the pod in a near-catatonic state. Her clothing had been cleaned and repaired, and somehow she had managed to acquire a reasonable facsimile of her usual shoulder-wrap. Presumably she had bathed and eaten as well. Her face, though paler than usual, was composed, her eyes tranquil. Whether that calm was natural or chemically-induced, I couldn't say. As she circled around to sit beside Abrams her eyes met mine briefly, and within those turquoise depths I saw a brief flare of anger, which faded quickly into a kind of cold apathy. The look she bestowed upon Linda, though, was one of pure hatred. Linda returned it impassively, her arms crossed.

Captain Thunumm cleared his throat thunderously, and nodded his massive head politely at Odyn and Linda. "Governor," he said, "Mrs. Rochelle. I apologize for the delay--we will begin shortly, as soon as our final participant has arrived."

I frowned. Final participant? I thought. Who could that--? Then the door slid open again…and when I saw who floated there, supported by two beefy guards, I felt my jaw drop in astonishment.

Somewhat rumpled, as if his presence was not entirely voluntary, Frank Rochelle wore patched jeans, a short-sleeved shirt, high worn boots, an empty holster--and an expression which was at once defiant, suspicious, uncertain…and queasy. He looked quickly at all of us in turn, his eyes widening as he got to me…but when his gaze fell upon Odyn his face twisted in anger, and if not for the guards he would have thrown himself across the table at her throat. She returned his smoking stare coldly, not moving.

"Oh, knock it off, Frank," Linda said, and he spun, noticing her for the first time.

"Linda? What the hell--?"

She flashed him a twisted smile. "Sit down and shut up," she told him, "and you'll find out." Oddly enough, she did not seem particularly surprised to see him. "I told your captain how to locate our platform," she whispered sidelong to me--and judging from his expression, Frank had realized that as well.

As soon as the leader of the Protectors had been seated--somewhat against his will--Captain Thunumm once again cleared his throat. "General Rochelle," he said formally, "thank you for coming." I gazed at him in fascination. This was the first time I'd seen him in ambassadorial mode; but even the most hardened warrior must resort to negotiation once in a while.

Tearing his gaze away from his wife, Frank glowered at the Quadrian. "What's this all about, Captain?" he demanded. "Abducted from my home at gunpoint, practically thrown into one of your landing craft…"

"I apologize for the unorthodox way our invitation was delivered," Thunumm said dryly. He glanced at Linda. "I had reason to believe you might choose not to accept a more conventional request. I assure you, we mean you no harm. You will be returned to your platform, or wherever you wish to go, as soon as we have completed our business here."

"What exactly is that 'business' to be, Captain?" Odyn asked pointedly. She nodded toward Rochelle, her eyes narrowing. "And why did you feel it necessary to include him?"

"What we are here to discuss, Governor," Thunumm said firmly, before Frank could interrupt, "is the future of Lands-End. A matter in which the unaltered humans have as much stake as the amphibians." He paused and looked around. "Everyone in this room is aware of the task Yerba Buena came here to complete." He nodded at me. "Or, more accurately, what Commander Ehm'rael was sent here to undertake with our protection. It has been her misfortune, and mine, to become embroiled in your world's internal politics. Generally speaking, that is an area in which the Alliance is forbidden to interfere. But in this case I have no alternative. It has become increasingly clear to me that our negotiators' reports were inaccurate. They indicated a stable, peaceful planet, on which our personnel would be perfectly safe and our project could proceed without difficulties. Whether they were deliberately lied to, or whether they merely saw what they wished to see, I do not know--nor is it important now.

"Over the past several hours I have received reports from Commander Ehm'rael, Mrs. Linda Rochelle, and Governor Geeri Odyn." He paused, and his tentacles lifted briefly in amusement. "Reports which contain interesting contradictions as well as many congruities. But on one point they all agree: since her arrival here, a respected Combined Forces officer has been extremely ill-used: misled, abducted, threatened, and physically violated." He glanced at me, and then at Linda. "In the interest of expediency, Commander Ehm'rael has agreed not to pursue any charges in the matter of her kidnapping." Which was news to me, actually; but in fact he was right: it would have been pointless now. Especially now. "Her experiences, and the events of early this morning, prove that this world's problems are both deep-rooted and endemic. I am also deeply dismayed by a certain drastic solution proposed by the Chrysaoans, and embraced by the governor--though with some opposition."

Odyn looked away. Frank frowned in confusion, and Linda leaned across to fill him in, quickly and quietly, with many gestures toward me. Finally, his eyes on my neck, he nodded his understanding. Thunumm, meanwhile, reached out a tentacle and touched a button. "Control Deck. Compcomm."

"Control Deck. Saunders here."

"Lieutenant, you have been monitoring the planet's radio traffic?"

"Yes, sir. As ordered."

"Very good. Please summarize the current situation."

I heard the grin in Saunders' voice. "Controlled chaos, sir. The governor's bodyguard, Major Akad, has been found shot dead, and Governor Odyn is missing. Commander Ehm'rael and Representative Sah'ahl of the Hegemony are wanted for questioning in both matters. A certain Eynryk Haspar, who is apparently the President Pro Temp of the Legislature, claims to have assumed control of the government, but whether that is actually true is uncertain. He's calling for immediate military action against the Protectors and other known dissident groups. He's also been calling us almost constantly, demanding explanations, but per your orders I have maintained radio silence."

"Very good, Lieutenant," Thunumm said. For several seconds he gazed thoughtfully at Odyn; then, "You may break silence to issue this announcement," he told the Compcomm. "Governor Odyn is aboard Yerba Buena, having been brought here for her own safety. She will be addressing her people soon. In the meantime, any action, against any minority group, will be considered by us a hostile act and dealt with accordingly."

"Aye, sir."

Frank's eyes widened in amazement; while at the other end of the table, Odyn glared. "You have no right--" she began hotly, but Thunumm interrupted her.

"On the contrary, Governor," he said calmly. "I have every right. My orders from the Admiralty are very simple: 'Proceed as you see fit.' At the moment, I see fit to prevent needless bloodshed." His gaze shifted to Frank. "I have brought you both together today in hopes that we may reach some accommodation. Governor Odyn, you are the duly-elected head of your government. General Rochelle, you are the leader of the largest dissident group--we will not trouble ourselves with how it came to be so--and as such, perhaps you can speak for a great number of the unaltered humans. In this I may be mistaken; but at the moment you are what the Terrans call 'the only game in town.' I put it to you both, very simply: what do you want? What, in your minds, would be a reasonable solution to your problems? Governor?"

She sat for some time in silence, staring at the Rochelles. Finally she sighed. "I want…stability," she said. "Too much time, too many resources have been wasted chasing after the Protectors and groups like them." She looked up. "I want us to go forward--as one people."

By force, if necessary, I thought darkly, but I held my tongue. No need to speak: everyone in the room now knew the full significance of the thing around my neck.

"And you, General?"

Frank crossed his arms. "What we want is dignity and equality," he said grandly. "We want our voices to be heard, our votes to be counted, our labor to be valued. All we ask--"

"That's bullshit, Frank," Linda interrupted sourly. She gazed steadily at him. "You might be able to fool them with your 'equality and dignity' speech, but you're not fooling me--or yourself."

Shocked into silence, Frank sat frozen, his face slowly turning purple. "Pardon me, Mrs. Rochelle?" Thunumm said mildly.

She shook her head. "Captain, maybe there are some of us who actually believe that crap. I don't know. But I do know that my dear husband isn't one of them. He doesn't give a damn about freedom or any other high and noble cause. What he wants is revenge--pure and simple. The 'phibbies made him less of a man, and he wants to pay them back for it." She glared at him, and he stared back in mute fury. "And to accomplish that he's willing to play along with the radicals--the hard-core 'Protectors,' the morons who think they have a God-given right to run the planet, because their ancestors did. They're the real danger--not the common people."

"Then perhaps I should ask," Thunumm said, "what do you want?"

"Me personally?" She sighed. "All I want--all I've ever wanted--is a normal life. During the last two weeks, three good friends of mine have been slaughtered. This morning I was forced to kill a man--for the first time in my life." With a shudder of disgust, she touched her holster, but her pistol was gone. "I never wanted that to be a part of my life. I just want to live in peace--and if that means going back to the mines and being worked to death before I'm fifty, so be it." She gazed steadily at the captain. "If you ask me, that's what the majority of our people really want." Her gaze shifted to Odyn. "But I'll tell you what we don't want--the one point where Frank and I agree. We don't want to see the government entering into an agreement with either the Hegemony or the Alliance. Not unilaterally, without our side being heard--and not under her terms. And we sure as hell don't want to be turned into amphibians."

"I have been told," Thunumm said thoughtfully, "that both sides consider this disagreement irreconcilable. The differences are too great, it is claimed; it is as if you are two different species. I begin to wonder if this may be because both parties carry too much emotional baggage into the argument." He looked at Frank. "Your people regard the amphibians as patronizing and paternalistic, and say they refuse to take you seriously." His inner eyes shifted to Odyn. "You, on the other hand, regard the unaltered humans through the lens of old grievances, outdated for two centuries. I believe a resolution is possible--but it may require outside assistance. May I offer you that help, through the offices of the Alliance? The negotiators needn't be Terrans," he added quickly. "They could be members of my species, or Centaurii, or Sah'aarans, or Rax'xa…or any mixture thereof. Will you let us help you?"

Odyn and Frank gazed at each other, their eyes narrowed in suspicion…then, as one, they shook their heads. "No," Frank said, sticking out his massive chin obstinately. "Impossible."

"Never," Odyn said with a glint in her turquoise eyes. "As long as we remain genetically separate there can be no agreement."

Across from me, Linda groaned and buried her face in her hands. I knew exactly how she felt.

Thunumm sighed gustily. "Then let me explain the alternatives," he said. "The Alliance is in possession of a contract signed by you, Governor. We would be perfectly within our rights to force you to fulfill it--but that is not how we do business. You may believe this or not, as you choose, but the Alliance does not take things that do not belong to us. But we are not the only interested party. There is also--"

At that moment a klaxon shrilled, and the room lights suddenly flashed blood red. Odyn, Linda and Frank gazed around in alarm. The voice of Preston Saunders, taut now with excitement, rang forth from the shipwide PA. "Battle stations. All hands, battle stations. This is not a drill. Repeat, this is not a drill."

Captain Thunumm keyed the intercom. "Control Deck, report!"

It was Kevin Pao who responded from the weapons console, clearly nervous but efficient as always. "Sir, four…no, five…no, six vessels have just entered the system through hypertunnel node Beta. Sensors paint them as Chrysaoan combat cruisers. They're coming in fast--they will achieve planetary orbit in approximately…fifteen minutes."

Oddly, the captain made no move to depart. He looked over at Commander Abrams, a clearly significant glance; she nodded and unbuckled her seatbelt. "As we planned," Thunumm told her, a whisper which only she and I heard. She nodded again and left the room quickly, hand-over-hand on the grab-bars. I watched her go, my eyes narrowed in curiosity. Clearly our captain was up to something--but what?

Thunumm touched controls, muting the klaxon and returning the lights to normal; behind him, one of the smaller viewscreens continued to flash red. He turned back to our guests. "As I was saying," he went on blithely, "the Alliance is not the only player in this game."

"What of it?" Odyn scoffed. "We know why they're here--Commander Ehm'rael told us already. They're looking for the other Sah'aaran--Sah'ahl."

"Are they indeed?" Thunumm asked. "Let's find out." He clicked the intercom. "Lieutenant Saunders, hail the Chrysaoan flagship."

"Aye sir." There was a pause; then, "They're responding, sir. Message coming through on a video channel."

"Down here if you please, Lieutenant."

"Aye, sir."

We all turned…and as the big screen rippled and cleared, for the first time in my life I beheld a real live Chrysaoan.

At first, what I saw made no sense at all, and I had to blink hard several times before it resolved. If "resolve" is the correct word for what remained a decidedly bizarre sight. A wide umbrella-shaped bell, translucent beige with wide longitudinal purple stripes, the gently-fluttering, scalloped, Victorian-lampshade fringe lined with dozens of glowing yellow spots. Eyes, perhaps? No way to know. Below, a cluster of thick, knobby purple tentacles, waving as if in a breeze or current. Impossible to determine scale; the thing could have been one meter long, or ten, for all I knew. It floated--presumably in Zero-G--in the midst of a sickly yellow haze. Vague shapes, utterly unidentifiable, loomed out of the mist behind it. I looked…and felt my stomach turn over. No wonder they're called "Jellies"…

"Chrysaoan vessel," the captain said steadily, "this is the Alliance battleship Yerba Buena, Captain Urah Thunumm commanding. What is your purpose here?"

The Chrysaoan (he? she? it?) spoke then. What we heard was a translator, of course, not the creature's own voice; but the grating metallic screech seemed strangely appropriate. "Alliance ship, this is the Peacekeeping vessel--" Untranslated stuttering shriek. "This system is now the property of the Chrysaoan Hegemony. You are ordered to withdraw immediately."

"Please stand by," Thunumm said. He touched a button, muting the transmission; then turned to Odyn and Frank. The two of them were gazing slack-jawed at the Chrysaoan, their eyes wide with horror and disgust--for which I could hardly blame them. Only Linda seemed to be taking the apparition in stride; she sat with crossed arms, studying the Jelly in fascination.

"During the last two weeks," Thunumm said quietly, "the tactical situation in this sector has been changing rapidly." He glanced at me. "The destruction of our barge was the first indication--and since then our intelligence operatives have been very busy indeed. It seems clear that the Chrysaoans desire to shift the border between their territory and ours…in their favor. Lands-End lies along that line, and its strategic importance as a fuel depot is obvious. Whether an outright invasion was their intention from the start I don't know--but you may be assured that it is now. The disappearance of their representative has merely provided them with an excuse to act."

Odyn swallowed hard and rounded on me, her face twisted in fury. "Sah'ahl," she said between clenched teeth. "He knew, didn't he? He wasn't there to present those plans. He was sent to distract us, gauge our defenses…"

"No," I said harshly. "He was not." But even as I spoke, a tiny voice somewhere deep inside was whispering, what if she's right? Partially released from his mental conditioning by our bonding, he'd been able to tell me so much…but had he told me everything? I had no way of knowing. But looking back at his actions--I did not see a spy or a provocateur. Very much the opposite, in fact. Could it be that he had actually begun to work against his employers, fighting to prevent their invasion with me as his inspiration and catspaw? Once again, as with so many other things, I'll never know.

Odyn might have objected; but Thunumm raised his tentacles, interrupting her. "That is immaterial," he said. He looked at me again. "You understand now," he said softly, "why your warning was redundant. But your dedication in bringing it to me--and the pains you endured--will not be forgotten. They will be a prominent part of my official report."

"Thank you sir," I said. He knew, I realized suddenly, gazing into those inscrutable crimson eyes. He knew a Chrysaoan fleet was on its way here, long before I told him. Perhaps even the exact moment it would arrive--? Maybe the abrupt timing of this meeting was not entirely a coincidence…

"Governor Odyn, General Rochelle," Thunumm said seriously, "this is your choice. It lies within my power to defend your world. But I will do so only if you agree, here and now, to three conditions. First, an immediate cessation of all hostilities between amphibians and unaltered humans. Second, you will accept the presence of Alliance mediators to help you negotiate a permanent settlement. And third, you will fulfill your contract and allow the construction of the refueling facility, and the attendant Combined Forces presence in your system. If you can not, or will not, agree to these terms--I will have no alternative but to withdraw and leave you to deal with the Hegemony by yourselves." He gazed at them both in turn. "So--what is your decision?"

Frank barked a mocking laugh. "How do you propose to defend us?" he demanded, echoing my own thoughts, "with one ship against six?"

"That is my problem," Thunumm said placidly. "Yours is simply to choose." He nodded at the screen. "I would suggest haste; our friend will not wait forever."

Frank and Linda gazed at each other, their faces, otherwise so different, both wearing an identical expression of agonized indecision. Finally Odyn sighed and looked away. "On behalf of my government, I agree, Captain," she said. She glared at him challengingly. "If I still have a government, that is."

"With Akad dead," Thunumm assured her, "his conspiracy will unravel quickly enough, I suspect. Most especially if we present your people with a fait accompli." He turned. "General?"

For a few seconds I thought Frank would refuse…but then, with his wife's narrowed eyes fixed upon him, he nodded sharply. "You've got us over a barrel, Captain. I don't represent the entire normal-human population, so I can't swear that they'll all agree. But…I will do what I can to convince them to cooperate."

Beside me, Linda smiled and sighed; at the head of the table, Thunumm nodded in satisfaction. "For now," he said, "that is sufficient." He touched the button. "Chrysaoan vessel," he announced, "you are hereby informed that this planet is under the protection of the Terran/Centaurii Alliance. Your ships are ordered to leave this system immediately."

There was a pause, and I swear I heard astonishment in that unpleasant canned voice. "We are ordered to leave? You are in no position to make such a demand, Quadrian."

"The lead ship has a missile lock now, Captain," Pao's voice spoke softly from the intercom. "And the others are moving to flank us. Shall we--?"

"Stand by, Lieutenant," Thunumm replied. He raised his voice. "We are prepared to defend this world," he told the Chrysaoan. "You are strongly advised to withdraw."

"Advice rejected," the Jelly hissed. It paused. "Very well, Captain. You leave us no choice. Prepare to…what?" The screeching voice cut off in sudden discord, and a second later the screen went blank. Thunumm pounced on the intercom.

"Control Deck, report!"

"Sir," Pao said breathlessly, "we're painting more ships, entering the system through hypertunnel Gamma. Eight…no, ten…no, twelve." There was a tense pause…and then the young tactical officer gave a most unprofessional whoop of joy. "They're ours, sir! Four Combined Forces battleships, two frigates and six destroyers!"

"Captain Endicott of the Mukilteo is signaling, sir," Saunders broke in. "He's requesting orders."

"Attack pattern alpha-six, Lieutenant," Thunumm said calmly. Quadrians cannot smile; but if he had been human he would have been grinning like a fool. Or if Sah'aaran, purring madly. Sitting there gaping in astonishment, I finally understood his plan--and also why he was the combat hero and I the simple engineer. "But no ship is to fire unless fired upon," he finished.

"Aye, sir."

For several minutes we sat in tense silence; then Pao's voice broke through again. "The Jellies are retreating, sir," he reported. "On course back toward hypertunnel Beta. Our forces are in pursuit."

"Signal Captain Endicott," Thunumm ordered. "He is to escort the Chrysaoan vessels to the hypertunnel--and then he will bring his flagship into planetary orbit. He and I have things to discuss."

"Aye, sir," Saunders said. He paused, then went on, "Captain, the Chrysaoan flagship is signaling again. They're demanding the return of their representative."

"Tell them--" Thunumm began, and then hesitated, because I had turned to him with wide and pleading eyes. We had discussed this, he and I; he knew all about the horribly complicated, wonderfully simple situation linking Sah'ahl and me. But he also knew that my bond-mate was an employee of the Hegemony. Please, I thought. Goddess, please--! "Tell them," the captain went on, "that Representative Sah'ahl is dead: he was killed in a boating accident. And then break contact."

"Yes, sir!"

I condensed a thousand words of thanks into a smile, which the captain acknowledged with a quick, gruff nod. We're not out of the woods yet, I cautioned myself. Even if he lives…will the Alliance arrest him as a spy? Will they send him back to Lands-End to stand trial for sabotage? Will he be compelled to return to the Hegemony? Too many variables, too many questions…and I lacked the strength to deal with them. Later. Later.

Thunumm turned to our guests. "I will make arrangements to return you to the surface," he told them. "In the meantime, I suggest you consider what you will say to your people."

And that was all. Frank and Linda departed arm-in-arm, and Linda grinned and winked at me over her shoulder. Even by human standards, a strange couple…but perhaps they might finally achieve the "normal life" Linda yearned for. I hoped so, anyway. Odyn started to leave as well; but before she could, I grasped her hand, noting as I did--and with a fresh wave of horror--that my webbing had grown almost as full as hers. I'd almost forgotten it. "Governor, a favor--?"

She gazed at me, and in her eyes I saw a myriad of conflicting emotions: fear, relief, determination, sadness, anger. She knew, as I knew, that her job had only just begun; the most difficult days of her administration lay ahead. Her plan to assimilate the entire populace into one aquatic species lay in ruins--but would she let it go that easily? Would Alliance negotiators be able to overcome two centuries of distrust? Only time would tell--time which I for one had no intention of spending.

"And that would be, Commander?" she said flatly.

"I want my shrine back."

She paused…and then she smiled and grasped my hand. "You shall have it."


Hauling myself full-tilt down the narrow corridors, ignoring the shocked looks that followed me, I arrived in sickbay out of breath and with a chest that felt as if I'd been inhaling our fusion exhaust.

As with most CF combat vessels, Yerba Buena's medical center lay in the very center of the hull, the best-protected area available. Long, narrow, grey and unadorned, the main hospital section was lined on both sides with banks of life-support cocoons--cylindrical, body-sized chambers which always reminded me a little too strongly of coffins--a full two dozen in all. In the heat of battle--for example, the one we had just miraculously avoided--it would be a horrible place, full of pain, terror, blood and screaming; but now it was blissfully quiet and all but deserted.

I found Dr. Chiiriss in his office, a tiny adjunct to the surgery; and as I entered, the tall Centaurii peered at me across his unadorned desk with concern in his beady eyes. "Commander," his translator said flatly, "you must allow me to examine you…"

I shook my head firmly. "Never mind me," I said. "How is Sah'ahl?"

Chiiriss nodded in lieu of a smile, but continued to gaze intently at me. "Alive and resting comfortably," he said. "His injuries were nowhere near as serious as they appeared."

I sagged against the wall, a tingling rush of relief blossoming in my stomach and spreading quickly, almost--but not quite--negating the pain in my chest. "Thank the Goddess," I murmured. "When that projectile exploded, I thought…"

He nodded. "You may be forgiven for so thinking," he said. "As a matter of fact, anyone else would have been killed instantly. It was the Chrysaoan metal that saved him: it prevented his skull from shattering, and shielded his brain from the impact. There are some superficial burns on his face, but they can easily be repaired. He also lost both ears--" No point in mentioning that he'd only had one to begin with-- "but there is sufficient tissue remaining on which to anchor cloned replacements. It should also be possible to clone hair-bearing epidermis to cover the bare portions of his skull…"

I held up a hand. "Stop," I said. "Do you mean the metal is…gone?"

Chiiriss nodded. "Yes," he said. "I had no choice but to remove it. For the time being I have covered the exposed cranial bone with synthetic skin--"

"What about the circuitry?" I persisted.

"Ruined," he said. "I was forced to remove it as well." He shook his head. "I would not know how to even begin repairing it. Nor would any engineer in the Alliance, I daresay."

Grief-stricken, I buried my face in my hands. "No," I whispered brokenly. "Goddess, no!"

He touched my arm. "What is wrong, Commander? He will recover quickly enough…"

I shook my head in despair. "You don't understand," I said. "That circuitry you removed--it was Sah'ahl. Years ago he sustained brain damage from anoxia. The Chrysaoans repaired him--and that was how. Without it, he is…nothing. Brainless. A drooling imbecile."

The doctor tilted his long narrow head quizzically. "Who told you that?"

"He did."

Chiiriss took a deep breath. "In that case," he said carefully, "he was either lying…or badly misinformed."

Startled, I clutched at his desk for support. "What do you mean?"

"Sah'ahl has no brain damage," Chiiriss told me. "He sustained none of consequence in the incident today; nor, so far as I can tell, at any time in the past. Apart from a mild concussion, his brain is as healthy as yours or mine."

For a long moment I gaped, while reality spun out of control around me. My breathing was coming now in shallow desperate gasps. "Then…what was all that circuitry for?" I whispered finally.

Chiiriss shook his head. "I was hoping perhaps you could tell me." He paused. "Because of its damaged condition, I cannot be certain, but judging from the areas of his brain into which it was wired, it appears to have had several functions. There were a certain number of connections to his cognitive centers--but many more into the areas which control memory."

"Augmentations?" I guessed, remembering the feat Sah'ahl had performed, memorizing the entire subway system.

"In part, perhaps," the doctor said thoughtfully. "But it inhibited as much as it augmented. Perhaps more."

Another punch in the stomach…but curiously, one not entirely unexpected. I'd already seem the Hegemony in action once today: this was simply another example of their wonderful benevolence. I nodded tiredly. "I understand now," I said.

"You do?"

I nodded. "Yes. That circuitry was his…leash. Or perhaps I mean his chains."

"Pardon me?"

I shook my head. "Never mind," I said. "Can I…can I see him?"

"Yes," the doctor said. "For a few moments. He is still quite weak from blood loss and shock."

I followed him into the hospital and over to the one and only occupied cocoon. The grey metal tube enclosed Sah'ahl's body completely, except for his head; and that was swathed in white bandages. Only his eyes, nose and mouth were visible. He seemed to be asleep, or simply unconscious, his eyes closed and his breathing slow, deep and peaceful.

Dr. Chiiriss examined the vital-sign monitors on the panel above the cocoon, and nodded in evident satisfaction. "He is doing well," he said. He touched controls. "I will risk bringing him out of sedation briefly. He may be somewhat confused at first…"

I was scarcely listening, because Sah'ahl's singed eyelids had already begun to flutter. Gently I stroked his cheek. "Sah'ahl, can you hear me?" I said quietly, close to the bandaged stub of his right ear.

His eyes opened, just a slit; unfocused at first, they searched randomly, then locked with mine. "Where am I?" he breathed.

Tears of relief stung my eyes, and I blinked them back. "Sah'ahl," I said. "It's me. You're safe now. Do you…do you understand?"

Slowly he smiled. His voice was throaty, indistinct; and something about his intonation was…strange. Exactly what, I couldn't decide. "I understand," he said. "But who are you? And who is…Sah'ahl?"

My heart skipped a beat. Fighting panic, I said desperately, "Sah'ahl, that's not funny. It's me, Ehm'rael. You must know me…you have to…"

He gazed at me--and shook his head. "I'm afraid not," he said. "If I'd met anyone like you, I'm sure I would remember." He looked around, his eyes finally coming to rest on my uniform patches. "Combined Forces?" he went on. "This must be the rescue ship. Please--what happened to the rest of the crew?"

My throat closed up; I could not speak, not a word. The Centaurii moved me aside gently, and bent down over his patient. "I am Dr. Chiiriss," he said. "You are going to be fine. What is your name?"

"Sah'majha," my bond-mate said without hesitation. "Engineer's Mate First Class, Terran-registry freighter Tallahassee. We were attacked by Chrysaoans--no warning, no provocation. Forced down on a small moon. Please, can you tell me about my shipmates?"

"We will discuss that later," Chiiriss said. "You must rest now." He touched a button, and those anxious golden eyes slowly closed.

I was shaking uncontrollably now, my body ice-cold, my arms wrapped tight around my abdomen. The doctor rested his long bony hands on my shoulders. "I am sorry, Commander," he said gently. "It would appear you were correct--after a fashion. The person you knew as Sah'ahl did exist within those circuits."

I gazed up at him--and then, as simply and casually as switching off a light, I stopped breathing.